Release of ICE detainees a positive step forward

This week, as both the House and Senate hold oversight hearings on the recent release of ICE detainees, I urge Congress to recognize that most of the men and women who were released never should have been imprisoned in the first place. In my view, ICE's release decisions were fiscally necessary, consistent with sound detention population management and posed no adverse consequence to public safety.

First, let's discuss cost. At a time of unprecedented pressure to cut government spending, we should be reducing detention costs and should not be detaining people who pose no significant risk of flight or danger to the community. It costs an average of $140 a day to hold someone in ICE custody, $50,000 a year. The total price tag to the American taxpayer is $2 billion annually. Effective alternatives to detention have proven overwhelmingly successful at a cost of a few dollars a day per person.

Second, let's move to our huge immigration detention population. On any given day, ICE maintains 34,000 detention beds, which is a quota mandated by law. This bed mandate makes any meaningful discretion and prioritization in immigration enforcement impossible. Feeding this detention system is a law Congress enacted in 1996 requiring that most people in deportation proceedings based on their past offenses are held in custody, even if they are nonviolent, and the criminal system has determined they are not a risk to the community. Such a system cannot differentiate between a terrorist and a single mother of U.S. children or a green card holder who's lived here his whole life.

Third, we must ask ourselves if this system is consistent with our values. Those who are apprehended and detained during the course of removal hearings are often shipped thousands of miles away from their families and warehoused in remote private facilities in the desert, such as the Eloy and Florence detention centers in Arizona. An immigrant ripped from her community in New York could end up in Florida. Only about 17 percent of detained immigrants ever have the benefit of legal counsel. Most often, the immigrant has no way of understanding the charges against them and whether there is any meaningful 'relief' from deportation for which they may be eligible. Without counsel, they are unable to navigate complex court proceedings that involve gathering documents, evidence, witness lists, and more. Increasing stories of deportations of U.S. citizens who didn't have the wherewithal or understanding of the system in order to convince a judge that they were indeed U.S. citizens attest to the gravity of the dilemma.

It is downright un-American to detain someone in a remote facility with no realistic means of consulting with family or legal counsel for months or years and then drop-kick them across the border, simply because it facilitates the bureaucracy's hunger for high deportation statistics. Multiply this injustice by the hundreds of thousands, and you have today's state of affairs. Future generations will look back with disbelief on such a callous, inhumane system. We can fix it this year, and ICE's recent releases are a positive step in that direction.

Grussendorf is a former immigration judge in Philadelphia and San Francisco and recently wrote a book, "My Trials: Inside America's Deportation Factories."